I wrote this article as it was a feature article for a magazine I was working on and I wanted to have a ‘male’ presence - to feature a man who is the epitome of style. I wanted a man with true grit and substance – with style inside and out. As soon as I had established that fact, I knew immediately who this should be. Without a doubt, there is no one more stylish, on both the inside and the outside, than Mr Christopher Gardner. Chris’ story of his ‘Pursuit of Happyness’ has encouraged me and millions of others to pursue their happiness and to truly believe that anything is possible, no matter where you are at in your life; start where you are, use what you have and do what you can. Below is the article - this would, without a doubt, be one of the proudest moments of my life - please enjoy.
Will Smith starred as Chris in the movie and received Academy Award, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations for his performance. Chris was an associate producer on the film but it was the very last scene of the movie, when Will and Jaden Smith walk down the road that would change my world forever! This scene was my favorite in the movie, because there he was, the real Chris – not an actor, but the man himself. Watching this scene, I connected even more with Chris’ story and I did not know it right then, but Chris would become one of the biggest influences in my life and still is to this day. All of my friends and family knew that I had a dream to one day meet the man in person - I spoke of it like it was not ‘if’ but ‘when’ - I knew it like I knew the sun was going to rise the next day. Many years have passed since my dream began but it was a few months ago that I found myself looking for a Man of Style and I knew immediately who it should be. So, because Chris had taught me so well, through his story and lessons of never giving up on a dream, I contacted his offices and before too long, I found myself traveling to Chicago, Illinois to meet and interview the man in person.
With more than a touch of jet lag, I was greeted by his truly professional, down-to-earth and happy team. They treated me with style and with breakfast, before escorting me to Chris’ home for our interview. As we waited for security to clear us at the lobby of the Trump Towers, I began to get nervous. I was about to meet the man I had dreamt of meeting for all of these years. My hands were shaking and my head was fuzzy from lack of sleep. We entered his apartment which was everything I expected and more - it had a very upmarket masculine feel. And as I looked around this beautiful abode and admired the magnificent view, I imagined Chris sitting in this apartment, reflecting on his previous life struggles, and thinking of times when he slept on bathroom floors just so he could afford to feed his son. Now, Chris wakes up to a completely new life, full of blessings, where he has the opportunity to travel the world sharing his story, inspiring others and giving hope to people from every corner of the globe. What an incredible testament of love, faith and perseverance.
Chris’ deep voice and presence filled the room as he walked out and greeted me. He was impeccable! Not a crease in his shirt, perfect white cuffs, complete with cufflinks and he asks, “Am I OK like this? Or should I change?”– I reassure him that he is perfect the way he is. His taste and style are flawless and this man, who at one time carried his whole life in a suitcase, obviously has a passion for fashion and a keen eye for quality. Chris politely invites me out to his massive terrace garden to take a closer look at the breath taking Chicago skyline. It was at this moment, as I stood next to him and we shared personal details about our lives, that I realized this opportunity was something I had manifested for myself, and Chris was the person that had unknowingly taught me how to make this moment happen – surreal!
It was whilst standing on his terrace that he stopped to show me the ‘Holly’ tree. The Holly tree was named after his wife of 20 years, who lost her battle with brain cancer in 2012. During the last years of Holly’s life, Chris prided himself on being her primary care giver, he claims it as his ‘calling’ and I could easily see in his eyes how much he loved this woman. To love and be loved like that – unconditionally and completely - is something I think we all hope we can experience just once in our lifetime. I felt touched by his loss, but at the same time also hopeful because of his story. And maybe that was simply the message - that men like him do exist, that relationships like that do exist and that real love is not just an unattainable fantasy.
Being that The Pursuit of Happyness was such a popular story, I wanted to spend my time with Chris finding out everything about the ‘man’, Christopher Gardner, and where he is at in his life right now? Was the man that I had held high on a pedestal for all these years everything I thought he would be? And so, the first question I asked him was about his life now and what he would say he does for a ‘job’ or a ‘living’ - he hesitates for a moment then says, “First of all I don’t have a job,” and laughs from a place that sounds so deep and hearty, then adds, “the last thing I ever want to do is get a job – Oh My God! I would say I am trying to help find and create the next Chris Gardners, and they are all over the world.” Chris once worked at a very successful stockbroking firm and then went on to start his own, Gardner Rich LLC, and is now a much sought after speaker. Chris tells me that in the past few years alone he has had speaking engagements and appearances in over 70 countries, which prompts him to momentarily pause the interview to ask his assistant Tina if she got his passport back – it had to be sent off to get additional pages added, as it was completely full after only 2 years. Although it may sound glamorous to some, Chris rarely gets to experience each place he visits. He sees the airport, convention center and the hotel and then sees the same in reverse order on his way out. He’s not complaining though, as his primary purpose for travel is to engage and touch people from all over the world.
Chris is so generous and transparent with me and goes straight on to say, “Man, I’ve got to tell you, that first book, The Pursuit of Happyness, to be walking down the street and have someone stop you and just say I’ve got to tell you how this book changed my life, not that I enjoyed your book, not that I didn’t like your book, which I’ve heard as well - how your book changed my life. A woman right here in Chicago stopped me and told me how she connected so much with my story. She told me she read the book three times and on the third time, she grabbed her suitcase and babies and left. She had clearly been in a very abusive relationship, and it changed her life!”
Chris initially had no plans to write a book and make it into a movie and had no idea that it would become what it has to so many. He actually did not want to do the book to begin with because to do a book like that, you have to be willing to relive experiences that you might otherwise prefer to forget. Chris shares with me that he was going to be a coward and say no to the book. It was at a function, where Chris was receiving an award, that he overheard a guy making comments about how, if you were born in ‘this family’, if you were raised in ‘this neighborhood’, if you grew up in ‘this community’ – that you would turn out to be a certain way. Chris thought that what this guy was saying was total ‘BS’ and it was at that point that he decided to do the book.
Chris’ motivation and determination to have a better life essentially came from his role as a father, a single father I might add. He told me, “The truth of the matter is, you’re talking to a guy that grew up without a father. I made the decision as a part of my spiritual genetics, as a five year old boy, that when I grew up, became a man and had children, that my children would know who their father is. That became the most important decision I ever made in my life. Period. End of story. Whatever else happened, my children would know who their father is. One of my greatest fears my whole life was that if I didn’t make this work another man was going to be raising my child. I don’t know if you know anything about that, but unfortunately men treat other men’s children differently than they would treat their own, you know? So that was my biggest fear. My ex knew that as well, that is why she was so comfortable leaving both of the children with me and walking away.”
I, like Chris, grew up without knowing my father and I am a single parent as well, so I can totally relate to what he is saying on all levels. We discuss the impact that divorce, separation and abandonment have on children and he says, “Well the truth of the matter is that’s the universal experience, so many of us have holes in our souls the shape of our fathers.” And I immediately know what that hole feels like. Chris too knows what this feels like and how important it is to have role models in your life and that of your children - men and women that they can look to for love and guidance. Chris says, “Most importantly for me I had other men in my life that I shared blood with, and some that I didn’t share a single drop of blood with, and I embraced it. I am so grateful for my uncles Henry, Archie and Willy - my mother’s brothers. All of them were distinctly different and filtered different roles at different times in my life. One of the guys, one of the men that I was absolutely closest to, that I never talk about, he’s right there on that wall.” He points out everyone as he continues, “Down there is my Uncle Joe, and the story goes that my uncle walked from Mississippi to Chicago to get away from racism and discrimination - and I don’t doubt that for a second. The truth of the matter is history tells us that a whole lot of folks walked and they left any way they could. That guy taught me more about being a man than anyone else I’ve known in my life. How not to be afraid and I am so thankful for him.”
When I shared with him how much I loved the scene at the end of the movie where he walks across the road in front of Will and Jaden Smith, he laughs and tells me the story of shooting that scene and how it took nine takes because he couldn’t stop smiling. Grinning from ear to ear he recalls the story, “That scene, we had to shoot that scene nine times, I could not stop smiling. It was a beautiful day in San Francisco. I’m wearing a beautiful suit, which I hated initially. It’s now in my office. The reason I couldn’t stop smiling, was my mom. At one point in my life, I was going around telling people that I am going to be an actor. I don’t have to go to college -I am going to be an actor. I am going to tell stories! One day I asked my mom for five bucks so I could go to the movies and she was sitting there reading the paper and she looks up and goes, ‘hmm why don’t you just act like you got 5 bucks?’ Chris’s laughter fills the room. “How the hell do you act like you got 5 bucks, ok? My point is, that day shooting that scene with the biggest movie star in the world - I’m looking up at the heavens and I’m thinking Mom I’m finally acting like I got 5 bucks. Ok? I couldn’t stop smiling. That must have added a million dollars to the budget because we had to shoot that scene so many times.”
After visiting over 70 countries in two years, I am curious to know if there is any place that Chris hasn’t been that he would like to go? He quickly points to his couch and says with his soulful laugh, “See that thing right there? My couch, that’s where I want to go!” When he is home his tailor is apparently never too far away. All of Chris’s suits and shirts are custom made. I ask his Creative Director, Salvador Guerrero, how he would describe Chris and he tells me, “Chris is a man with a big heart, a great spirit, full of personality and impeccable taste in style and fashion; that’s the CEO of Happyness.”
Chris seems to ‘have it all’ and I can only imagine what it feels like to have once been a homeless, single parent who had to carry around his life in a suitcase, to now be living in one of the most prestigious addresses in Chicago, but more importantly, to now know that he can provide for himself and his family. I feel a sense of pride and I am not sure why? Maybe it is because I know how it feels to be where he was at and my heart is happy for him. Which prompts me to ask him if the CEO of Happyness is happy? He smiles with a big wide grin and says, “I am ecstatic. I am coo coo for cocoa puffs! Are you kidding me? I’m healthy, as a single parent I have raised two children that have become very special young people and I’m in a position to do what I want with my life. That’s a lot. And I didn’t say anything about money, toys or stuff. That’s a lot right? ”
At the end of our time together, Chris excuses himself, while we get things packed up. Then, out of the silence, comes music – loud and uplifting. As I look around his apartment I take a moment to reflect on where I have been, what I have been through and where I am standing right now, and I am truly humbled. As I listen to the music, I smile to myself - how appropriate the he would choose this particular song. Maybe he sensed that I had just realized one of my dreams? I smiled to myself as Destiny’s Child sang out - I'm a survivor, I'm gonna make it, I will survive, keep on surviving!
This truly inspiring man once again reinforces for me that baby steps are OK, as long as you are moving in the right direction and that having a dream is a necessity. And so now, I leave Chicago with a heart full of gratitude and a bucket list wish ticked, to continue on My Pursuit of Happyness.
Thank you to Chris Gardner www.chrisgardnermedia.com and his amazing team.